"Yaaaay! The beach!"
It might seem funny, but I'd never been to the beach before. I was always too worried about whether or not I was waterproof, so I didn't really want to get near the ocean. But ever since Gaku-chan's attempt at giving me swimming lessons, I've gotten a little more comfortable assuming that I'm not going to short-circuit or anything if I get some water in me. (Although I'm still at terrible risk of drowning — those lessons didn't go so well.)
So it was really great that the day we'd chosen was such a perfect one. The blue sky stretched out overhead, only tiny wisps of cloud visible. The sea was rolling with gentle waves, blue capped with white. Umbrellas were stuck into the beach all over, dotting it with wild, vivid colors — almost as varied and vivid as the colors of the people lying on blankets, or running around playing with balls and frisbees, or wading and swimming in the ocean. The sun beat down pleasantly — I was sweating a little in my light sundress, but only a little.
Gaku-chan craned her neck looking around, black helmeted head swiveling back and forth, her optic sensor whirring as she changed depth of focus. "Think they're here already? They said they'd probably beat us here, but... Ah — there they are."
I would have been able to spot Alice even through a crowd, thanks to the way she glowed, even though she was much shorter than Ten-chan, but we actually had a clear view of them both. The two of them had already staked their claim — an umbrella, a few beach chairs, and a big blanket spread out in front of them. Ten-chan raised her hand high over her head to wave us over. I winced, a little, though I hoped no one else noticed. When she stretched like that, it emphasized the section of her torso that was... incomplete. I never stopped noticing it, of course — the section with her outer plating roughly ripped away, the one so inadequately repaired with struts and crossbars improvised from the broken pieces of a jungle gym. But when she moved like that, and they went out of alignment just enough to extend her torso a little, it just brought it right to the front of my mind all over again.
I could probably do better repairs now. I was older and more skilled, and if I had a little time I could probably find better supplies to do it with. But Ten-chan wouldn't allow it, I'm sure, and I don't want to traumatize her any more than I already have.
"You're late," Ten-chan said bluntly, looking at Gaku-chan.
"What's the matter?" Alice asked, a teasing tone in her voice. "Can't a peon like you even keep to a simple train schedule?"
"Hi, Alice," Gaku-chan said, unfazed. "We're actually right on time — you two are the ones who got here early. What have the two of you been doing all this time?"
The two of them froze — I could actually hear the gears in their joints seizing up for a moment. "That — that's none of your business!" Alice exclaimed.
It was funny — Gaku-chan really seemed to know just how to get to Alice these days. She could find just the right words or questions to break past whatever she was saying and fluster her, or get her to show her softer side. I wasn't sure how -- it was like she'd gotten so much closer to her practically overnight. But it worked -- Alice wasn't needling Gaku-chan nearly as much any more. Though 'not nearly as much' still didn't mean 'never.'
She'd also been a lot friendlier with Ten-chan, too, though a lot of the time that just amounted to working together to tease Kasoku-kun or Gaku-chan. Still, they did seem awfully close these days.
"Anyway, we're all here now," Gaku-chan said, dropping her bag on the towel. "Thanks for grabbing this spot." And then she moved to, I suppose, take off her cover-up.
Watching people change clothes was one of my secret fascinations. It was one of the times when I was most sure other people were really seeing something so different than I was. Mom had known there was something odd going on because it took me so long to learn how to dress myself when I was little. But I hadn't really realized it until I was in high school, when we started being expected to change in the public locker room for P.E. class.
Gaku-chan stood up straight, touching her hands to her shoulder plates. They depressed with an audible 'click.' And then there was a 'pfwump' sound, as a piece of cloth shot out of one of the vents on her back, landing on her beach chair. A thick white button-down shirt — what she'd been wearing over her swimsuit, I guessed. She raised one leg to touch a panel on her thigh, and a pair of shorts joined the shirt.
She crossed her arms in front of her, shifting her weight a little awkwardly as some of her armor plating realigned. "So... Do you like... Augh, sorry, stupid question."
But I barely noticed, because I was staring wide-eyed at her legs as they reconfigured. "Wah! Gaku-chan, that's so cool!"
She tilted her head to look at me. "Huh?" But I was already dropping down to look at them up close.
"It's like a speedboat!" The smooth, shiny black armor plating had snapped out to form a sleek, aquadynamic shape. If she pushed her legs together, the plates would click together to form an actual tiny boat, with her torso sticking up from the bow and her feet at the stern — and even as I looked, I saw her heels opening up to extend propellers, the feet reconfiguring into two halves of an outboard motor.
I ran my hands along the edge where the plating from one leg would attach to the other. "This is just like a snap-together model kit," I said, feeling the pegs that would attach firmly to the corresponding holes. "I've never seen anyone who transforms quite like this..."
"Um... Yukari?" There was kind of a strangled sound to Gaku-chan's voice. "Could you... maybe stop touching my legs like that?"
I blinked. And then blushed crimson. I scrambled up off of my knees. "W-w-wah! I'm so sorry, Gaku-chan!" I realized that some of the other people on the beach had turned to look at us — optics, visors, and sensors of every sort trained on us.
"It — it's no big deal," Gaku-chan said, looking anywhere but at me. She fixed her gaze instead on some of the onlookers, and I saw them turn away — though a few kept at least one antenna pointed at us.
Still, I couldn't keep my eyes off of those amazing legs. "Gaku-chan, you've been practicing, haven't you? Swimming I mean."
"Well... I guess so, yeah. I mean, I thought if you wanted another ride in the water, I should be ready, so I've been working out a little..." Her head was turned slightly away, one hand on the back of her helmet. I still wasn't an expert in body language, but I was pretty sure she was a little embarrassed about it.
"I can tell. You're the ultimate all-purpose model, remember, Gaku-chan? And I can see that you've been transforming to make a really awesome water mode. It looks so cool!"
"But if it wasn't the new water mode, what did you want me to see?"
"It's nothing," she said. "Forget it."
"Hmf! This is just what one would expect of a peon like you!" Alice set her hands on her hips, her eyes flickering quickly. "Leave it to the ordinary folk to try to use a swimsuit to impress a girl who can't even see human bodies!" She tossed her head imperiously, letting the cylinders on the back of her head swing slightly to emphasize her point.
Those were the most striking part of Alice's looks. She was mostly a Real Robot design, but these were pure Super Robot style, a totally unique element. The four cylinders were attached to the back of Alice's head, stretching down to her mid-back, and were filled with a faintly glowing golden liquid. Conduits ran around the side of her head to feed the liquid into and out of her eyes, giving them the golden glow that made her stare so intense. I always thought it had something to do with her ability to visualize math problems, though there probably wasn't any way to be sure. Maybe if I opened up her head and poked around, but I wouldn't be entirely sure what to look for.
"Your swimsuit's very nice, too, Alice-chan," Gaku-chan said. "Who are you trying to impress?" Once again, Gaku-chan knew just how to quiet Alice down.
I smiled slightly, but I couldn't help but feel a little awkward. I wondered what Gaku-chan's swimsuit looked like. If it was on a clothes rack or packed away, I'd be able to tell — clothes apart from a person seemed to look the same to me and other people. But right now, the only way I'd be able to see it is if Gaku-chan took it off… And. Well. It wouldn't make her look any different to me, I was pretty sure, but…
I decided to keep myself busy and avoid that thought. I started taking things out of my bag and laying them out on the blanket. "I brought some sunscreen, and some extra towels... And I've got some bottled water, and my mom made some rice balls, just in case we get hungry... And I've also got..."
"Jeez, how much did you pack?" Gaku-chan said, kneeling down to help me pull things from the bag.
"I just didn't want to forget anything... I mean, this is my first time at the beach, and if I made trouble for everyone just by forgetting something..."
"You worry too much sometimes, you know that?" Gaku-chan said affectionately, pulling another towel out of the bag. It snagged on something, pulling it out of the basket to flip out onto the sand.
"Oh my god," Ten-chan said, picking it up. "You actually brought one of these things to the beach? Is that just sad or what?"
I snatched it out of her hands and carefully brushed the sand off. "I-I just wanted... I mean, Gaku-chan asked me to… I was just returning it…"
"Leave her alone, Nanami," Gaku-chan said. "That one's mine. Yukari bought it for me, and my mom accidentally scuffed it up while she was cleaning. So Yukari offered to fix it up for me. And since we were going to see each other today, what's wrong with bringing it along?"
It's true I care about all of my models a lot. But this one was more special than most. I bought Violia for Gaku-chan the same day we bought our phones, because she looked so much like Gaku-chan. Not that it was a perfect resemblance or anything — they had slightly different armor shapes and optics, and Violia was more colorful, while Gaku-chan was mostly elegant black and silver — but close enough that you might think they were family.
That phone we'd bought… My eyes strayed to Gaku-chan's left hand. Her left arm was the one part of her that wasn't all black and silver. I'd used the phone's pieces to repair her arm, after that horrible business with the girl with blades for fingers. The one who'd had that horrible bug that made her unable to empathize with people. I'd had to use parts of the phone's casing and hinge to repair the shoulder joint, leaving an awkward section of blue plastic there, and most of her palm had been replaced with the screen and keypad. The screen which, now, was permanently cracked and dark.
She claimed not to mind — that the phone had been more trouble than it was worth. I wondered about that, but I hadn't pressed it. There was more than she was telling me, but that was all right.
I'd been having some dreams about Gaku-chan lately. Sometimes she didn't look familiar, but I could always tell it was her somehow. There was the time my mother was yelling at me, but there was something attached to her head and her back, something with an antenna, and I realized it was part of Gaku-chan, her components reconfigured to puppeteer Mother's arms and legs and even her face, with Gaku-chan's phone screen arm blocking off one eye. That had been a recurring theme — there was even one time when everyone I'd ever met had a smaller version of that on them.
And then there had been the dream where I'd woken up in a hospital, and it looked like the entire universe was in there with me. A field of stars, endless in depth, containing everything that could ever exist — and yet all fitting into a single hospital room. I had been so confused until I heard it start mumbling to itself — in Gaku-chan's voice. And then I reoriented, and understood what I was looking at -- a shell of crystal antennae and mirrored arrays that somehow picked up images of the depths of space and wrapped Gaku-chan up in them. But even then, they couldn't shake her real shape -- in the reflected light of the stars, I saw the shape of her faceplate, the glow of her eyes... and the display from the phone built into her hands.
She'd been strange in that dream, almost delusional. Insisting she wasn't herself. But I got through to her somehow. I wish I could remember how. But I'd seen the reflecting arrays crack, and then shatter. I'd seen her through the gap, her body suspended by the massive number of modifications and instruments she had sticking off of her, until she'd been too distanced from everything to even really move. The modifications were kind of scary to look at — kludges and improvisations, done without much rhyme or reason, just bits stuck on to other bits until something worked, no matter how ugly they were. And I remembered her shaking those modifications off, pulling her way free of them, until she was flying out of the shell, into my arms...
Into my kiss.
I remembered how it had felt, my lips touching the warmth of her faceplate. It was like our first kiss, the day we first met, only better, stronger, more intense. I remember them parting almost automatically, my tongue gently tapping the smooth metal, giving me a tingle that I couldn't be sure wasn't electricity... but I couldn't be sure it was, either.
It felt so nice, either way. When I woke up, I was still all tingly.
Gaku-chan sat up and stretched. We'd been sunbathing and chatting for a while — it was almost noon, I thought. "I think I'm going to go take a dip. Yukari, you want to come with me?"
"For a ride? Um, if it's really okay?"
"Dummy," she said, with a little laugh. "You know I'm fine with letting you ride me whenever." She paused, seeming to think over her words, then turned and abruptly hurried towards the water. I wasn't sure why at first, but the way that Alice and Ten-chan had just started sniggering gave me a kind of an idea.
Gaku-chan stepped out a little further into the water, past her knees, and started reconfiguring. Her legs came together, snapping into the boat configuration I'd anticipated, and she rose up to float on the surface. Her engine-feet came together, too, dipping into the water. Her torso leaned forward and lowered, becoming an integrated part of the front of the boat, leaving her head in the lead. She almost looked more like a jet ski than any kind of boat — her shoulder plates were even shifting to be more like handlebars. And one more part, one I hadn't noticed before, extended out of her bow.
I stared, feeling the heat spread across my face. What had emerged from Gaku-chan's body was a powerful supercavitating screw device, designed to act as a tapering spiral propellor to pull her through the water at incredible speeds.
Or, to put it another way, a drill. An incredibly awesome drill.
"Yukari! Are you coming or not?"
"Wah! Yes, Gaku-chan! Yes, I'm coming!" I scrambled to my feet, brushing the sand off of me, and moving to put my plastic model down.
But not before I snuck a tiny, secret kiss to Violia's faceplate.
Someday, I'm sure, Gaku-chan and I will get to relive our first meeting. Many, many times over, if I can hope for my dreams to come true.
Until then... well, it's nice to pretend, isn't it?